Artist // Instagram
—by Andreas Hale
In case you missed it, social media once again exploded in debate over Bruno Mars and whether or not he is guilty of cultural appropriation. The latest chapter of this never-ending conversation regarding non-black artists thriving off of “Black” music was jumpstarted by a video The Grapevine published titled “Is Bruno Mars a cultural appropriator.”
The conversation tackled both sides of the debate and had a blurred line between appropriation and influence. But the fundamental problem that Mars’ detractors had was the fact that they offered no solutions and instead bemoaned the fact that Mars has won an Album of the Year Grammy when Prince, Beyonce, and numerous other Black artists have not.
But is that Bruno Mars’ fault? Ultimately, the frustration regarding the 24K Magic artist’s success is misplaced and needs to be redirected to something more constructive than a “f*ck Bruno Mars” sentiment.
If you have a problem with Bruno Mars, then you may as well add Eminem to the list of non-Black artists who are successful in a predominantly Black art form. Oh, but if you include Eminem, you had better include rappers, DJs and producers that include Evidence, DJ Babu, DJ Rhettmatic, Big Pun, Fat Joe, Joell Ortiz, B-Real, Immortal Technique and a litany of others who are not Black but thrive off of “Black” music. The reason why “Black” is in quotation marks is because the history of Hip Hop isn’t solely tied to Black people. But if you did your homework, you already knew that.
If your argument is about R&B then you must also despise the likes of Amy Winehouse, Bobby Caldwell, Michael McDonald, Teena Marie, Hall & Oates, Jon B, El Debarge, Mayer Hawthorne, Joss Stone, etc. If you’re caught playing Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love” or Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” at a weekend cookout, your Bruno Mars argument is rendered null and void. Don’t you dare bop to Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” or “I Keep Forgetting’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and try to be upset with Bruno Mars. If you’re going to take this stance, take it all the way and don’t pick and choose who you deem as a culture vulture.
But, be clear, Bruno Mars, for all intents and purposes, is a Latino artist. And as much as Latinos have contributed to both hip hop and R&B, we should really be more careful with who we tag as a cultural appropriator.
Admit it, you’re upset that Bruno Mars has garnered recognition off of genre-bending when the artists who preceded him have not. More importantly, you’re upset that it’s a non-Black artist who just won a Grammy. To many he’s as racially ambiguous as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and that allows him to slide into areas that Black artists have not. However, Mars has been very open about his heritage and has constantly employed people of color to assist with creating and performing his music.
Some of these complaints actually do make sense. To be honest, those detractors are correct in stating that it is not fair that the 32-year-old is succeeding in areas where other Black artists have failed. However, who you should be directing your energy toward isn’t Bruno Mars. Instead, it’s the system and the culture of the consumer. Perhaps even ourselves as Black people, for not supporting some of the R&B artists who continue to make great music but haven’t received mainstream recognition.
But the negative energy being aimed at Bruno Mars is problematic.
Bruno Mars isn’t a culture vulture who stole Black music and did his best to erase its origins. As a matter of fact, Bruno Mars has often spoken up about his influences and credited those before him for giving him the opportunity to exist. Also, the reckless usage of words such as “cultural appropriation” doesn’t apply here. Miley Cyrus? That applies as she’s proven to use the culture for her personal gain and abandon it once she bled it dry. But Bruno Mars didn’t just show up making Black music. He comes from a musical family and had a long and complicated road to become the artist we know today. This wasn’t a decision to make “Black” music for personal gain. It’s really all he knew. If he wasn’t making the music today, what would his detractors prefer him to do? Again, no solutions, just complaints.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, would we have accepted Chris Brown making an album like Doo-Wops & Hooligans or would we have rejected it for having an old sound considering that we’re still a culture that’s enamored with being “young and fresh” and frown upon the old?
Bruno Mars hasn’t “stolen” anything. What he has done is effectively pay homage to the greats who have influenced him. You know, like Jay-Z has done with The Notorious B.I.G. For both artists, their predecessors have influenced them and remnants of their music can be found in what is created today. However, they don’t take ownership of what was created before them. Is Bruno Mars to blame for growing up on the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men and Babyface? If so, what’s the alternative? Tell him to stop making the music he knows and loves? That's preposterous and irresponsible.
“When you say ‘black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop, and Motown. Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland,” Mars said in an interview with Latina magazine. “So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.”
That doesn’t sound like someone who is trying to erase the origins of the music he creates. Rather, one who pays homage to it. The video for the remix to “Finesse” pays homage to “In Living Color” and opened a portal to that variety show that the younger generation may not have had before. It actually created awareness, and that’s more than what others have done before him.
Also, it’s not like Bruno Mars is just getting over because of his racial ambiguity. He’s a damn fine performer who, unlike many of today’s artists, has made sure that the stage presentation of his music is nothing short of exceptional.
If you don’t like Bruno Mars’ music, don’t listen to it. But that’s about as far as this should go. Leave the accusations of cultural appropriation at the door and be ready to apply them to someone who does openly steal from our culture. If we keep insisting on using these terms, they will ultimately lose value when they are needed most. Keep that in mind the next time you want to criticize and artist and not the system.